Palmerston North bishop argues for Catholic thought in the public square today

Adams preaching web


Is there a case for Roman Catholic thought in the public square today?

That was the question put by Palmerston North Bishop John Adams in a homily at the Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College inaugural Mass for 2024 celebrated at Sacred Heart church, Ponsonby. The answer, Bishop Adams said, is an emphatic “yes”.

The bishop started his homily by mentioning recent movies such as Barbie and Oppenheimer.  The latter movie prompted Bishop Adams to do some reading about physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bishop Adams mentioned the ethical debate over the dropping of the bombs. Then-President Harry Truman claimed the dropping of the bombs was justified because it brought about an early end to the Second World War, Bishop Adams said.

But it is also true that “80,000 people died instantly, at Hiroshima. Tens of thousands have died subsequently of radiation. Hiroshima was not a military centre. It lacked any major war industries. Those who targeted it ensured that the aiming point for the bomb was the middle of the city, whereas in every Japanese city . . . light industry was on the peripheries of the city. Truman’s diary entry was that the target would be a purely military one”.

Bishop Adams asked, “Now as we prepare at this Mass, in the spiritual sense, for the opening of the Catholic Theological College, we might ask – was there a Catholic voice in that debate?”

He suggested the English Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe as one such voice, albeit slightly later.

“She worked at Oxford University, and that university had decided to grant Mr Truman an honorary degree. Anscombe was appalled by the decision.” She composed a pamphlet (titled ‘Mr Truman’s Degree’) and forced through a vote of the doctors and masters of her university as to whether Mr Truman should be awarded the degree. She lost.

“Elizabeth Anscombe accused President Truman of a crude, consequentialist [reasoning],” Bishop Adams said.

“She claimed that it is a moral given that choosing to kill and innocent as a means to an end is always murder. She went on to say that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were clearly innocent. The clear and immediate intention of the bomber pilots, [and] those who ordered the bombing, was to obliterate a huge number of Japanese people as a means to their further aim of bringing about a Japanese surrender.”

“Intentions matter,” Bishop Adams continued. “They help form our characters in a particular way. And that includes not only our ultimate intention, but all the means we choose to achieve them.”

Bishop Adams allowed that most people can and do act in ways that can have bad side effects. “However, intending bad effects is always to be avoided,” he said.

“I’m guessing most of us here today would concede that there is a difference between war crimes such as the targeting of civilians and the acceptance of the sometimes avoidable loss of combatants in the theatre of war [that] is, perhaps at times, in proportion, justified.

“Many of you will, of course, know these same consequentialist arguments are being used today on several fronts, most obviously in defence of the military action currently taking place in Gaza and in the Ukraine.

“Yes, innocent people are losing their lives because military and political leaders see them as being expendable in the light of the supposedly greater cause. According to Anscombe, this is never morally acceptable. I agree with her.”

Bishop Adams referred to St John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), noting that this taught that universal moral norms can be known and applied by people.

“Again, I am sure that that is the case,” Bishop Adams said.

“I mention all that to you this afternoon because of a broader thought. And it is this – we need places which foster and protect the great Catholic intellectual tradition. We need places which value the great heritage of Catholic learning. Our theology is not a museum piece, but it is an understanding of the Gospel – I put it to you anyway – that the world needs to hear today more desperately than before.

“And for me personally, the courage and the Catholic insight of Elizabeth Anscombe had helped me enormously to negotiate the complex and so-often flawed world of ethical consequentialist thinking.”

Bishop Adams said that he offered the Mass for the staff of Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College “who are in the front line of this worthy mission to disseminate the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition to the students of this college and – I put it to you – further afield.”

“. . .  Is there a place for Roman Catholic thought in the public square today? Yes, most certainly, there is,” Bishop Adams said.


Posted in ,

Michael Otto

Reader Interactions


  1. olha says

    But how many Catholics are willing to stand up
    against the social left?
    Precious few.
    If any.
    Marxism and Secular Humanism share a common materialism.

  2. Craig Young says

    Surely act consequentialists would oppose the use of nuclear weapons in this context because of the hideous consequences that the act of using a nuclear weapon on a major population centre (such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki) had, or would have? Having been an active participant in the peace movement of the eighties and early nineties, I still vividly remember the horrific depiction of the consequences of such acts in television dramas such as the (US) Day After or (UK) Threads. Granted, one could also argue that the use of nuclear weapons somehow caused the end of the Second World War, but that argument breaks down seriously in the context of the subsequent nuclear arms race since 1945. If nuclear war had ever broken out, as it nearly did in September 1983 after a Soviet early warning computer malfunctioned and incorrectly showed a US nuclear first strike heading for the USSR, it would have ‘deterred’ nothing, except the very survival of humanity itself. Indeed, it was fundamentalist Protestant deontologists who most often defended their use in that context, on the facile basis that ‘communism’ was ‘evil’ and even non-combatant children, elderly and disabled people could be legitimately targeted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *